Sound — 9
The Wonder Years have been a band for ten years now. They have released four studio albums as well as enough EPs and splits to make the full length compilation record that was released in 2013. They are identified as one of the pioneers of the modern day pop punk sound and are at the fore-front of the current wave.
This band expands on their melodic pop punk origins more and more with each release. I feel that their last album "The Greatest Generation" was their first album in which every song showed a great deal of musical progress as well as showcasing a specific emotion within each track. But this band continues to blow my mind with what they are able to create while still remaining true to their signature sound.
The guitar riffs are as tight as ever and have some very nice and varied tones to them throughout the entire album. The guitar work by Nick Steinborn, Casey Cavaliere and Matt Brasch has the same great chord progressions and melodic lead layers that we've come to love from The Wonder Years. But this is not the standard idea throughout the whole song like it was for the most part on previous records. A perfect example of them drifting away from this is on the song "Cigarettes & Saints" where the layers for the first three minutes are pleasing leads with a gentle rhythm in perfect accompaniment.
The drum work on this album is ridiculous. I just don't understand how Mike Kennedy does what he does while setting just the right pace and placing unique fills and cymbal hits exactly where they need to be. He is definitely one of the best pop punk drummers out there right now.
But we can't forget about the jazz trained bass man Josh Martin. As usual he does an excellent job at holding down the low end throughout. He really steps up to the plate during build ups and verses where the drums and guitar clearly don't have enough foundation to make it on there own.
One of my favorite things that they use sparingly on this album is the chorus vocals that show up on songs. The Wonder Years have used these many times in the past but they sound much more organized and on pitch then they did in the past. In "A Song for Ernest Hemingway" the band has a choir sing us into the more punk-rock influenced tune. In "A Song for Patsy Cline" they show up to add character to a heavy guitar riff after the first chorus. And in "I Wanted So Badly to Brave" there are some very catchy woah ohs over a a very happy jam that really make you want to sing along.
Lyrics — 9
I am going to quote singer/lyricist Dan Campbell to get the concept of the album across accurately.
"After completing the trilogy and realizing I'm always going to carry sadness and that's okay, I set out to try to be part of the solution to the problems. And very quickly I learned how much I had to learn." ... "I started calling the eventual goal 'Heaven,' and that's got no Judeo-Christian overtones to it. It's just a word; call it what you want. I'm not even using it as a physical place. It's an understanding. It's when the problem is solved once and for all. And then I realized we're probably never going to get there. Not for anything. And that's okay! What matters is we're working on it. The more you learn about something-it could be anything-the more you realize is left to learn... The more you learn, the more you learn you're just scratching the surface."
As far as individual tracks go, well, we have a lot to talk about. "Cigarettes & Saints" is probably the best example of Dan's lyrics showing a great deal of maturity and the band as a whole taking a much more progressive take on ballad. This is a song that will leave you in tears as you listen to him discuss his mournings of a friend and how he thinks the drug industry is ultimately the one to blame for his friends overdose. I have never heard a song that made feel at one with the musicians more and it is by far my favorite song on the album.
"Stained Glass Ceilings" is the only other song on the album that can really compare to its emotional drive and progressive sound with Jason Butler delivering some more harsh vocals and lyrics about a faulty society, racism and classism. Both are around five minutes long with more then enough beautiful music to keep your attention throughout.
But lets talk about some of the songs that represent The Wonder Years earlier days a little more. "I Don't Like Who I Was Then" is probably their most positive song to date where Soupy talks about doing everything in his power to recognize his mistakes and become a better person from it. A very honest self reflective verse from it is "Hidden in the tall grass in the naked light of day, I put my past-self in the ground. I've been dancing on the grave. I'm not the person that I was then. I'm tearing him away. I was bitter. I was careless. I was nineteen and afraid."
I never thought I would say that a love song had really deep original lyrics until I heard the cheerfully depressing song "You in January" with poetic lines like "Goddamn, you look holy hit from behind with light. You're a painting of a saint." and "You were the one thing I got right." This song recites specific memories about Dan and his girlfriend while letting us all know how much he "hates leaving" for tour because of how much he loves and misses her.
Overall Impression — 8
One major improvement that they have almost perfected since their last album is the overall structure of the songs. They know exactly which songs to have three choruses in and which songs to not have any at all. They know when there should be more subtle moments, when there should be a quick transition before jumping into a more quirky section and when they should extend the length of a part to build emotion and really help the listener grasp what The Wonder Years are feeling. Some other favorites of mine that I did not mention are "Palm Reader" and "The Bluest Things on Earth."
To wrap it up, I definitely love the more prog-rock influence that this album has scattered all across its thirteen tracks. However, I am still a little iffy about the bookends of this album: "Brothers &" and "No Closer to Heaven." "Brothers &" just doesn't flow into "Cardinals" as well as it should. While "No Closer to Heaven" is a simple acoustic song that tries to tell you the theme of the album in two minutes and simply does not compare to the seven minute epic closer off "The Greatest Generation," "I Just Want to Sell Out My Funeral."